Dozens of labs got live an­thrax

The mis­taken Army ship­ments were sent to at least 17 states, the District of Columbia and 3 other coun­tries.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan@la­times.com Twit­ter: @wjhenn

WASH­ING­TON — An Army test­ing fa­cil­ity in Utah mis­tak­enly sent live an­thrax sam­ples with­out proper safe­guards to as many as 51 com­mer­cial com­pa­nies, aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and fed­eral lab­o­ra­to­ries, and that to­tal is ex­pected to in­crease, a widen­ing Pen­tagon in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

Of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day that the labs iden­ti­fied so far are scat­tered across 17 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Canada, Aus­tralia and South Korea, sug­gest­ing a sys­temic lapse in the mil­i­tary’s pro­gram to study and build de­fenses against bi­o­log­i­cal weapons agents, in­clud­ing an­thrax.

The in­quiry by the Pen­tagon and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion is the largest of its kind since let­ters car­ry­ing pow­dered an­thrax were mailed to mem­bers of Congress and the me­dia shortly af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI ul­ti­mately traced the spores, which killed five peo­ple and in­fected 17 oth­ers, to a sci­en­tist at an Army lab in Mary­land.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have scram­bled over the last 10 days to de­ter­mine the size and scope of the cur­rent prob­lem, which in­volves sealed vials con­tain­ing frozen an­thrax that were shipped from the Army’s Dug­way Prov­ing Ground to fed­eral labs and other fa­cil­i­ties par­tic­i­pat­ing in govern­ment-backed stud­ies.

Of­fi­cials say no one has de­vel­oped an an­thrax in­fec­tion from the ship­ments, but 31 mil­i­tary and civil­ian lab work­ers who han­dled the vials are be­ing treated with an­tibi­otics for po­ten­tial ex­po­sure.

Robert Work, the deputy sec­re­tary of De­fense, told re- porters Wed­nes­day that in­ves­ti­ga­tors had yet to de­ter­mine how many labs re­ceived the live an­thrax or ex­actly how the er­ror hap­pened, but said they had found no sign of tam­per­ing or other foul play.

He and other of­fi­cials said that send­ing the in­fec­tious ma­te­rial via FedEx and other com­mer­cial ship­ping com­pa­nies posed no threat to the pub­lic be­cause the vials were prop­erly sealed. Each vial con­tained 1 mil­li­liter — about one-fifth of a tea­spoon — of liq­uid an­thrax.

Work said he aimed to com­plete the re­view at the end of June. “We are work­ing with ur­gency,” he said.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a mem­ber of the In­fec­tious Dis­eases So­ci­ety of America, a med­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion based in Ar­ling­ton, Va., said an- thrax was reg­u­larly sent to labs for re­search on de­tec­tion sys­tems, pro­tec­tive cloth­ing and vac­cines. Vials con­tain­ing other dis­ease agents, in­clud­ing HIV and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, are also shipped, he noted.

“There’s an en­tire net­work of labs ded­i­cated to this sort of work,” he said. “But biosafety is of ut­most im­por­tance. When you have lapses in biosafety, sit­u­a­tions like this can hap­pen.”

More than 320 labs are regis­tered in the United States to work with the most deadly bi­o­log­i­cal agents, in­clud­ing an­thrax.

The U.S. labs that re­ceived the sus­pect ship­ments are in Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Delaware, Florida, Illi­nois, Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts, New Jer­sey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ten­nessee, Texas, Utah, Vir- ginia, Wash­ing­ton, Wis­con­sin and the District of Columbia.

Nor­mally, an­thrax sam­ples are ir­ra­di­ated to ren­der them in­ac­tive. It’s not yet clear whether the ra­di­a­tion failed, or why re­searchers at Dug­way did not de­tect the live an­thrax be­fore it was shipped.

“What­ever they did, it is in­suf­fi­cient,” said Paul Keim, a re­searcher at North­ern Ari­zona Univer­sity who worked on the 2001 an­thrax in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “It’s em­bar­rass­ing, but it isn’t dan­ger­ous to the pub­lic. It’s a fail­ure of the safety sys­tems, and there should be se­vere con­se­quences.”

Four U.S. mil­i­tary re­search labs grow or store an­thrax spores for study, in­clud­ing Dug­way, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors have be­gun test­ing more than 400 batches that pre­vi­ously were de­clared in­ac­tive to see whether they pose a dan­ger.

Re­searchers were alarmed when the first four batches they checked all tested pos­i­tive.

“We felt that it was an in­ac­ti­vated and safe ... col­lec­tion of spores,” Work said. “It turned out not to be the case. That im­me­di­ately started the wheels turn­ing within the de­part­ment so that we could try to char­ac­ter­ize the prob­lem.”

He said he ex­pected the num­ber of U.S. labs af­fected to in­crease as other batches are tested. “We have a num­ber of lots that we need to in­spect and ver­ify, and it takes some time to ac­tu­ally do the test.”

The Pen­tagon and CDC be­gan their in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter a pri­vate lab­o­ra­tory in Mary­land called the CDC on May 22 to report it had cul­tured one of its an­thrax sam­ples from Dug­way and found live spores. The dis­cov­ery came by ac­ci­dent, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said, be­cause an in­ac­tive sam­ple is not usu­ally cul­tured.

The Pen­tagon last week urged all labs that had re­ceived sam­ples la­beled “in­ac­tive an­thrax” to stop work­ing with those un­til the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is com­plete.

Dug­way is an iso­lated mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity in the desert of south­west Utah and is said to be as large as Rhode Is­land. Sci­en­tists at Dug­way de­velop and test U.S. and al­lied de­fense sys­tems against chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons.

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, of­fi­cials said, sci­en­tists use gamma ra­di­a­tion to ren­der an­thrax in­ac­tive, and then place the sam­ple in an in­cu­ba­tor for 10 days to en­sure the spores did not mul­ti­ply. At that point, each sam­ple is given a “death cer­tifi­cate” and then frozen.

For ship­ping, the frozen vials are wrapped in a cloth, placed in re­seal­able bags, put in­side a poly­car­bon­ate con­tainer, and placed in­side a box. The pack­age is then placed in­side a larger box filled with dry ice.

Bacil­lus an­thracis, the bac­terium that forms an­thrax, causes an acute bac­te­rial dis­ease that can be fa­tal if not treated. It is not con­ta­gious but can be in­haled, in­gested or trans­mit­ted through con­tact on the skin. Some­one who is in­fected may not show symp­toms for weeks.

In­fec­tious-dis­ease pro­fes­sion­als say an­thrax is the most likely bi­o­log­i­cal agent to be used in an at­tack be­cause it is widely avail­able.

Pres­i­dent Nixon or­dered a halt to U.S. de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion of germ weapons in 1969, and stock­piles were de­stroyed. Since then, U.S. mil­i­tary ef­forts must be aimed only at im­prov­ing de­fenses against a bi­o­log­i­cal at­tack.

Ge­orge Frey Getty Im­ages

SAM­PLES of live an­thrax were sent from the Army’s Dug­way Prov­ing Ground in Utah. The num­ber of labs known to have re­ceived the ship­ments is likely to rise.

Jim Wat­son AFP/Getty Im­ages

DE­FENSE OF­FI­CIAL Franca Jones demon­strates at a Pen­tagon news briefing how an­thrax is typ­i­cally shipped to labs around the coun­try and be­yond.

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